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Dominaria: Underrated / Overrated


On Thursday, we got the entire spoiler for Dominaria, and with full knowledge of the set, it's now safe to say that Dominaria is the best set that Wizards has designed in years. It's powerful, without having as much of the linear "preconstructed deck coming from booster pack" feel of Kaladesh with Vehicles and energy. It's oozing with flavor and nostalgic but still accessible to players who weren't around for the earliest years of Magic. Basically, Dominaria is exactly what we needed on the heels of the worst year of design and Standard gameplay that we've had in the mythic era of Magic. Expectations for the set have been high ever since we learned that we'd be returning to Magic's home plane, and with Dominaria, Wizards has not only met but somehow exceeded these sky-high expectations!

While we'll be talking about the set at length over the next months, with videos, articles, and game play, today we've got a singular focus: discussing some of the most underrated and overrated cards in the set. Of course, underrated and overrated are a matter of opinion, especially at this point, when we haven't been able to actually play with any of the sweet cards from the set, so rather than being the gospel truth, this is more of my personal list. If you think I've gotten something wrong or am missing some hidden potential, make sure to let me know in the comments, and if you have your own list of underrated and overrated cards from Dominaria, share those as well! Anyway, let's get to the cards and decklists!

Underrated: The Antiquitites War

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In the right deck, The Antiquities War is basically "you win the game" with suspend two. Remember, we're in a format with both Treasure tokens and Servos, which means that turning all artifacts into 5/5s is not only especially devastating but pretty easy to set up. In theory, it only takes four artifacts to represent 20 damage, and with cards like Treasure Map and Spell Swindle, it's pretty easy to flood the board with Treasure tokens. Plus, this doesn't even include going deep with Brass's Bounty or playing non-Treasure artifacts like Walking Ballista, Azor's Gateway, and the like. Assuming that we can play The Antiquities War on Turn 4, it should be fairly easy to set up for a Turn 6 kill, simply by playing as many artifacts (or making as many artifact tokens) as we can while waiting for the lore counters to tick up. 

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Another consideration is using The Antiquities War as a backup win condition for Aetherflux Reservoir / Paradox Engine storm. One of the challenges with playing Paradox Engine is that the deck doesn't really do much of anything without the namesake artifact. While the actual kill condition is different, in many ways, The Antiquities War is just as effective as Paradox Engine as closing out the game (by turning all of our random mana rocks and Prophetic Prisms into 5/5 attackers) but without the weakness to Abrade and other artifact removal. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if, considering the amount of artifact support we have in our current format, The Antiquities War ends up as the centerpiece of a very competitive Standard deck in the not-too-distant future, either as the primary finisher or as a backup finisher to protect against artifact removal. It combines the best mode of two different Tezzerets (Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas's +1 and Tezzeret, the Seeker's ultimate) while not dying to random creatures attacking it. It's simply too good to sit on the sidelines. 

Overrated: Cabal Stronghold

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Cabal Stronghold might look like Cabal Coffers, but it's actually a lot worse in a number of ways. While the fact that it does tap for a colorless mana naturally is a big upside, Cabal Stronghold is just a much, much worse Cabal Coffers in every other way. Of course, Cabal Coffers isn't legal in Standard or Modern, so just being worse than Coffers doesn't mean that Cabal Stronghold is unplayable. Opt is a lot worse than Ponder, but it's still a Standard staple because it's all that we've got. So, rather than focusing on the comparison between Cabal Stronghold and Cabal Coffers, let's look at the problems with Stronghold in the context of Standard and Modern.

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There are two reasons why Cabal Stronghold is bad. First, the requirement of only adding mana for basic Swamps makes it a lot harder to power up. If you could simply drop Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and go to town by making a ton of mana, Cabal Stronghold might be Modern playable, at least in certain fringe decks, similar to Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. However, with the basic Swamp requirement, your mana base needs to be almost exclusively basic Swamps and Cabal Stronghold to really make Cabal Stronghold function, which probably isn't worth the cost in Modern, where splashing a second color and playing utility lands likely give you more power than maybe making extra mana with Cabal Stronghold, and it might not even be worth the cost in Standard. 

The second reason why Cabal Stronghold is overrated is mathy. For Cabal Stronghold to even tap for an extra mana, you need five basic Swamps and Cabal Stronghold on the battlefield, which would net you a total of seven mana. As such, even in a deck built around the land (with all basic Swamps), it doesn't really do anything until the late game, which means the easiest mono-black shell in Standard (Mono-Black Aggro) can't really take advantage of the card, since it generally wants to win or lose the game before Turn 6. 

If you dig into the numbers, the problem becomes clear. Let's say you're running a mana base that is 20 basic Swamps and four copies of Cabal Stronghold. You're going to have five Swamps on the battlefield on Turn 6 only 44% of the time (on the play). When you combine this with the fact that you'll draw a Cabal Stronghold about 63% of the time, this means you'll be making extra mana on Turn 6 about 28% of the time, which isn't a very high success rate.

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It's also worth considering that the "all Swamp" requirement basically crosses any utility lands off the list of potential playables (if you play 15 Swamps, five non-Swamp lands, and four Cabal Strongholds, you'll have five Swamps by Turn 6 only 18% of the time; to increase this rate to over 50%, you'll need to draw a massive 19 cards into your library, which is roughly the equivalent of Turn 12!). This "no utility land" rule ends up being a massive opportunity cost. Consider a Mono-Black deck in Standard. Is potentially making extra mana on Turn 6 or later worth giving up Field of Ruin, Ifnir Deadlands, Arch of Orazca, and friends? Maybe, but probably not. 

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All in all, it's not impossible that Cabal Stronghold shows up in a Mono-Black Control list in Standard, possibly using Torment of Hailfire and some big Demons like Razaketh, the Foulblooded and Demonlord Belzenlok as finishers. However, Cabal Stronghold isn't a card you can just toss into any deck, or even any black deck, or a deck with a lot of Swamps and have it give you value. The deck-building cost is extremely high, so you need to make sure that the payoff is worthwhile because there are other powerful utility lands in both Standard and Modern, so if Cabal Stronghold isn't doing something powerful, it's likely your deck would be better with a Field of Ruin, Ghost Quarter, or splash color. 

Underrated: The Djinn

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Initially, I wasn't excited for Tempest Djinn—the basic land requirement seemed very limiting—but after thinking a bit more about the card, it does seem like the perfect deck exists to harness the power of not only the three-mana Djinn but Zahid, Djinn of the Lamp as well:

Favorable Winds is one of my favorite cards to build around, as two-mana anthems (much like two-mana lords) always have the potential to be powerful. While our past Standard Favorable Winds decks were mostly very aggressive and low to the ground, the addition of Tempest Djinn and Zahid, Djinn of the Lamp allows us to add some more top end, giving us a super-fast clock to close out the game. 

While building around the Djinns is tricky, both offer a lot of power. Tempest Djinn, with an all-Island mana base, should always be a 4/4 flier on Turn 4 while growing even more in the late game. Plus, with Favorable Winds on the battlefield, it has enough toughness to stonewall both Rekindling Phoenix and Glorybringer, which are the two most played fliers in our current format. Meanwhile, Zahid, Djinn of the Lamp forces us to play a handful of strange cards to have an artifact and cast it for just four mana, but a 5/6 flier for four is massive, finishing the game in just four attacks all by itself.

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In theory, the nut draw for the deck is something like Hope of Ghirapur on Turn 1, Aether Swooper on Turn 2, Tempest Djinn as a 3/4 flier on Turn 3, Zahid, Djinn of the Lamp (tapping the Servo from Aether Swooper) on Turn 4, and then hopefully a Favorable Winds or two on Turn 5 for the evasive win. Even if things go poorly, even just Tempest Djinn on Turn 3 into Zahid, Djinn of the Lamp on Turn 4 is a super-fast flying clock.

Making sure we have enough artifacts to support Zahid, Djinn of the Lamp is important, but it's actually pretty easy to pull off. Aethersphere Harvester is great in a Favorable Winds shell anyway, and Aether Swooper has some interesting synergy, since even though the Servo it makes doesn't have flying, it can be used to crew Aethersphere Harvester so we don't need to tap a flying creature and can keep attacking with everything in the air. The bottom line on both Djinn is that while the number of decks that can take advantage of either is fairly limited, both have a lot of power in the right shell. Thanks to Favorable Winds and a reasonable number of strong blue fliers, it looks like the right shell just might exist in Dominaria Standard. 

Overrated: Thran Temporal Gateway

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The main reason I'm skeptical about Thran Temporal Gateway is that it looks a lot like Quicksilver Amulet, and while Quicksilver Amulet is a fun card to build around, it's rarely the centerpiece of tournament-level decks. Of course, you could argue that Thran Temporal Gateway is a better Quicksilver Amulet, since most of the big creatures you want to cheat into play (like Eldrazi, for example) are legendary anyway, so they are technically historic, and Thran Temporal Gateway can cheat artifacts, Sagas, and other types of legends into play as well. While this is a pretty reasonable argument, it's also true that, at least as far as Standard is concerned, the most game-winning things to cheat into play are creatures, which makes Thran Temporal Gateway pretty similar to Amulet, with the upside of hitting weird permanents but evened out by the downside of not putting non-legendary creatures into play.

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In Standard, one of the biggest problems with Thran Temporal Gateway is Abrade, which gives a reasonable number of decks a main-deck way to deal with artifacts, and this doesn't even consider that artifact removal is a staple of sideboards thanks to all of the powerful Vehicles running around in the format. While it is true that Aetherworks Marvel (another four-mana artifact good at cheating creatures into play) was a Standard staple despite the hate, Thran Temporal Gateway isn't Aetherworks Marvel. The powerful of Aetherworks Marvel was that you could often play it and immediately spin it in the hopes of hitting something huge. With Thran Temporal Gateway, this is a lot harder thanks to the four-mana cost to activate the artifact. In theory, if you play Thran Temporal Gateway with eight mana (four to cast and four to activate), you can spin right away, but considering that most of the things you'd want to cheat into play cost eight or less mana anyway, this isn't really gaining much compared to simply casting your threat. 

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I've heard some people saying things like they want to play it in UB Control to fight through opposing counters, but  this sounds like a risky plan when you consider that Thran Temporal Gateway is legendary, so extra copies are dead draws. To make Thran Temporal Gateway worth the risk, you really need to be able to do something devastating with it right away, and I'm not sure such a thing exists in Standard.

Of course, simply being overrated doesn't make Thran Temporal Gateway unplayable. I fully expect that we'll build decks around the card because it's incredibly fun, and cheating things into play can be powerful. However, this isn't a card you can just slam into every deck, or even every deck with big historic spells. Similarly to Panharmonicon (another do-nothing artifact that forces you to take off your fourth turn), to make Thran Temporal Gateway work, it has to be so powerful that it catches you back up after putting you behind. This means that simply playing a Noxious Gearhulk or Dinosaur might not be enough (especially considering you could just use something like Hour of Promise to ramp into these threats without getting so far behind). While there might be a deck that can take advantage of the card's power, it will take some deck-building work to figure it out. 

Maybe the best hope for Thran Temporal Gateway would be in the sideboard of a ramp deck with a lot of historic finishers. Considering that most ramp decks don't have any (or many) targets for Abrade or Naturalize, opponents will likely sideboard out things that could potentially kill Thran Temporal Gateway, which then allows you to bring it in post-board and slam some huge Dinosaurs or Demons into play on the cheap.

In sum, while I'm super excited for Thran Temporal Gateway as a build-around, because cheating artifacts, weird legends, and Sagas into play is super fun, I'd be surprised to see Thran Temporal Gateway developing into a tournament staple in Standard. Similar cards in the past haven't really broken their Standard formats, and even though Thran Temporal Gateway has some upsides compared to older versions like Quicksilver Amulet, these upsides are likely outweighed by the fact that our current Standard is pretty hostile to artifacts thanks to Abrade and endless sideboard options. 

Underrated: Fungal Infection

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Fungal Infection probably doesn't look like much, but there's actually a ton of power hiding behind its common rarity and low converted mana cost. It's actually very similar to former Faeries staple Peppersmoke—a one-mana removal spell that has a lot of potential to two-for-one the opponent—except instead of drawing a random card, you always draw a 1/1 Saproling. 

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If you think about how Fungal Infection plays, it's similar to a more flexible (but higher risk) Disfigure. You can always kill a one-toughness creature, but with a bit of work and luck, you can use it to trade up for a two-toughness creature by casting it to give an attacking creature 1/1 and then immediately blocking with the 1/1 Saproling token. Considering that the top five most played creatures right now in Standard are Walking Ballista, Bomat Courier, Champion of Wits, Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, and Jadelight Ranger and that Fungal Infection kills all of them (with the possible exception of Walking Ballista, depending on how much mana the opponent puts into it) and leaves behind a 1/1 body, the card seems very strong and certainly worthy of sideboard slots and possibly main-deck play as well.

And this doesn't even include the other upsides of Fungal Infection. First, it's amazing against Mono-Red Aggro, since the possibility of a two-for-one is even greater; you can do things like kill an attacking Earthshaker Khenra and block an attacking Bomat Courier, which is a line that could swing the game all by itself for just a single mana. Second, so far, we've been talking about using Fungal Infection in decks that don't care that the token is a Saproling. The card gets even better if we can build a functional Saproling tribal deck. Perhaps something like this:

Overrated: Legendary Sorceries

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While most of the legendary sorceries offer a good rate for their effect, playing cards that can literally not be cast when things go wrong is a high-risk strategy, which could very well leave all of the legendary sorceries on the sidelines as far as seeing tournament play. Take, for example, Urza's Ruinous Blast. The entire reason to play a Wrath of God is so you can save yourself from a horde of creatures when things are going poorly, but the fact that you need to have a legendary creature or planeswalker on the battlefield to cast it means that there will be situations where you watch yourself die to random creature beats with your wrath stuck in your hand, uncastable. 

One way to get around this problem would be to simply cast a legend and the legendary sorcery in the same turn, but this will be pretty difficult, since all of the cycle is expensive (at least five mana, and potentially more for the X spells). Even if you have a two-mana legendary creature, this means you need seven mana to play it and also cast your legendary sorcery in the same turn, and many of the best legendary creatures and planeswalkers are four, five, or six mana, which means it will be all but impossible to play two cards in the same turn outside of the very, very late game. 

The good news is that all of the legendary sorceries are powerful, perhaps even powerful enough to build around by playing a bunch of legendary creatures and planeswalkers in your deck. Putting them on the overrated list doesn't mean they are unplayable. They can work with some careful deck building, and I expect that we will be trying out most of them because they are super sweet. Instead, the "overrated" label comes from the fact that, at least in the early days of Dominaria Standard, I expect to see a lot of players stuck with legendary sorceries in their hand thanks to not playing enough legends in their decks. 

So, how many legends is enough to make the legendary sorceries work? This is actually a really difficult question, since some variables are really hard to account for (like how often your legendary creatures will stick on the battlefield and how often they will die). With 10 legendary creatures and planeswalkers in your deck, you're 95% to draw one of more in your first 15 cards (roughly by Turn 7 or 8, depending on play / draw) and 78% to draw two or more but less than 50% to draw three or more. This means if your opponent can deal with your first two legends (which seems very possible), you're probably going to be stuck with your legendary sorceries in hand. On the other hand, if you can increase your number of legends to 15, you're 80% to draw three or more in your first 15 cards and about 55% to draw four or more, which might be enough to fight through removal (but still not without risk, especially in removal-heavy matchups). 

The question is whether there will actually be a deck in Standard than can run at least 15 legends (without running too many of the same legend and losing to itself thanks to dead draws). With about 35 non-land cards in a typical deck and at least eight or 10 slots devoted to spells (and potentially even more for the legendary sorceries themselves), this means that way more than half of your non-land permanents need to be legendary, which seems like a pretty high bar to get over. Perhaps someone will find the right mixture of legends and legendary sorceries to make a deck work, but the math is tricky and it will be difficult, which for now leaves the entire cycle in the overrated pile.

Underrated: Quick Hits

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  • Teshar, Ancestor's Apostle is oozing with combo potential. While the odds that any of these combos actually break out on the tournament scene are probably pretty low, it's one of the only cards in Dominaria for which I can construct a scenario where it ends up breaking not just Standard or Modern. This potential alone makes it underrated. 
  • While I'm sure it's not good, someday we are going to cast Sylvan Awakening and Fall of the Thran in the same turn, and it is going to be amazing. Speaking of Fall of the Thran, it's still the card I'm most excited for in the entire set. While it's a safe Armageddon, it's still an Armageddon, which we haven't had in Standard for a long, long time.
  • Lich's Mastery draw you cards and makes it so you can't lose the game, which keeps you alive to draw more cards. What more can you want out of a Magic card? Seriously, though, there aren't too many ways to get blown out by playing this in our current format (with River's Rebuke and Hour of Revelation being the main problems, but neither is heavily played), and when you consider that the card advantage you generate if you can keep this on the battlefield for just a couple of turns should be able to win you the game, it's possible this card is more than just Against the Odds worthy and could show up in "real" decks.

Overrated: Quick Hits

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  • Mox Amber is by far the worst Mox ever printed. While it might still have potential in specific decks, it seems especially hard to use in Standard outside of some sort of dedicated combo build looking to loop it with something like Teshar, Ancestor's Apostle. Considering it is currently the second most expensive card in the set behind Karn, Scion of Urza, it seems safe to call it overrated.
  • Squee, the Immortal is pretty bad outside of something like Food Chain or Serum Powder combo. While coming back from the graveyard (and exile) forever is nice, the problem is that you're only getting a 2/1 and you have to pay three mana every single time you do it. When you consider that Bloodghast is a 2/1 that comes back from the graveyard for free pretty much every turn, the upside of beating Cast Out or Path to Exile simply isn't worth the cost. Paying three mana for a 2/1 every turn just doesn't seem like a way to win games of Magic
  • Helm of the Host is one of my favorite cards in Dominaria, and while it will make a sweet Against the Odds episode and form the foundation for some really fun Commander decks, I'm pretty sure it's also completely unplayable as far as competitive decks are concerned. While going infinite with Combat Celebrant and making a board full of Gideon of the Trials sound fun, it's really easy for Helm of the Host to end up being a double self-Time Walk if your opponent simply lets you cast it and then kills it or the targeted creature in response to the equip.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. Which Dominaria cards do you think are more underrated? Which are more overrated? Let me know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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